Brandsplaining: why marketing is still sexist and how to fix it

Jane Cunningham and Philippa Roberts, authors of Brandsplaining, highlight ten principles brands should embrace to move away from the gendered factory settings of the past.

Jane Cunningham & Philippa Roberts

Authors PLH


Just over fifteen years ago, Jane Cunningham and I left our jobs in advertising to set up a new market research practice. Our time in agencies had given us lots of reasons to believe that women were both under-served and under-understood as an audience and we felt strongly that there was an opportunity to do things better. We set up with a specialism in female insight and audiences, and a purpose to help brands connect with them in ways that were more positive, more progressive, and more powerful.

At the time, the case that marketing was failing the female audience was pretty cut and dry. The marketing and advertising industries were almost entirely made by and led by men, and, even with the best and most enlightened intentions, the perspective and the practice was largely defined by men looking at women. Audiences were invariably considered and cast in male pleasing ‘good girl’ roles; categories played to male-pleasing conventions; the stuff to do with machines, with business, with systems, with worldliness, and with action were masculine; the stuff to do with appearance, domesticity, people, care, and nurture were feminine.

The headline grabbing Fempowerment narratives often disguise the problem, creating a distracting smokescreen of progress that camouflages the ongoing issues beneath.

Jane Cunningham & Philippa Roberts

From good girl to go girl

But then, very quickly in the years following our start up, the marketing scene began to change. As fourth wave feminism rolled in, and the opportunities, and threats, of social media began to be felt by brands, the new era, cringingly described as, Fempowerment came in to play.

The monumental success of brands like Dove and Always showed what could be achieved by challenging the conventions; empowerment messages were interesting enough to gain likes and shares; the good girl stereotype was augmented by an equally reductive rebellious opposite ‘the strong woman’; body positivity became another means of catching the eye; the ‘noble cause’ of empowering women provided a loftier and more exciting canvas for propositions and presentations than the boring old domestic space.  Suddenly, the hashtags were everywhere. Having spent decades telling women how to be and how to behave and how to be good, marketing was now telling women something else: to be bold, to be fearless, to be badass, to go from good-girl to go-girl.

All of which eye-catching, body-affirming, headline-grabbing, likes-seeking, hash-taggery could lead you to conclude that nothing more needs to be done in the world of women and marketing. Yet the evidence from our latest research suggests that this conclusion would be very much the wrong one to draw. Whilst there has been undoubted progress in many categories and with many brands, the research suggests the need for significant and serious work still to be done in three areas.

There is still work to be done

First off, the old-style boxed in stereotypes depicting women in male-pleasing roles with passive secondary personalities continues in a much more pervasive and hard-to-shift way than the Wonders of Femvertising headlines would imply. Of the women featured in advertising 85% could be described as traditionally attractive and 80% of women believe that women in advertising are still very thin. In over a quarter of the ads we looked at women were still being presented in unreconstructed ‘male gaze’ poses. What’s more, and in some ways worse, marketing is still presenting women as pretty dumb. When we ask women what characteristics define them most they put ‘sense of humour’ and ‘intelligence’ as two of the top three, yet in only 3% of ads are women actually being funny and in only 3% of ads are women shown doing something that requires intelligence of any kind.

Second, we are now picking up a widespread phenomenon that we describe as ‘sneaky sexism’ where brands play out the same old sexist ideas but in ways that are faintly disguised or sub-textual or implicit rather than explicit. So, for example, we see a lot of token appearances, a BAME woman, or an older woman, or a plus-sized model included but only for their exceptionalism. Or where obvious Pink and Blue are replaced by coded versions, pastel floral decorative ‘for her’, dark strong powerful for ‘him’. Or where the same old critical and perfectionist narratives are told in the sub-text rather than the text: weight-loss described as wellness or anti-aging told as ‘being age-less’. Or where the brand replaces the old narrative of ‘you need to fix your body’ with a new narrative that says, ‘you need to fix your behaviour’, be strong, be bold, don’t be sorry. 

Third, and more worryingly perhaps, the headline grabbing Fempowerment narratives often disguise the problem, creating a distracting smokescreen of progress that camouflages the ongoing issues beneath. We see brands make progressive claims to support women on the surface, in paid-for channels, but do much less when it comes to practice and to reality. At its mildest this presents as changing the showy ad but not changing the product or the packaging or the copy. At its worse, its preaching ‘support for women’ on one hand but treating them less supportively as employees or in the supply chain on the other.

Bridging the gap between what is preached and what is practiced

We have all seen the recent figures showing that women’s job losses due to COVID-19 are 1.8 times greater than men’s. We’ve read the study that says that one in four women say they’re thinking about having to leave paid work due to the pandemic citing company inflexibility and we all know about the ongoing gender pay gap. All this is very hard to reconcile with the ‘we support women’ narratives that have come to dominate so much marketing. 

So, where to go next, what to do to create more progressive movement and to bridge the gap between what is preached and what is practiced? To point the way to the answer we have conducted further research, and, in particular, we have examined the composition and characteristics of a new generation of women-made brands, brands that have been created in the last decade by women for women, and that are, as a result, free from the old, gendered factory settings of brands from the past.


Jane Cunningham and Philippa Roberts are the authors of the new book ‘Brandsplaining: Why marketing is still sexist and how to fix it’ published this month by Penguin. They are also the founders and directors of the research agency PLH, the UK’s leading research consultancy specialising in female audiences.

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Branding Sexism Marketing